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It's an old story, but when I was still working as an art director in New York, a friend of mine was teaching on the Hopi reservation out here. He said, "Come out and do a summer arts program for the kids on the reservation." I went from New York City to a village of 200. I spent two months in that environment, and right away I started thinking, "I could do something with this." I loved it. I couldn't wait to get back to Arizona. Returning here was the best thing I ever did.
Part of the draw for me is that the desert is always the most interesting in terms of composition and color, form, and feeling and mood — things that keep you interested in painting. I started using oil paint early on because the colors are as unlimited as the desert. I'd be bored to death if I had to paint pop art stuff, where nothing was informed by natural light or the changes that nature (especially in the desert) brings.
The desert is a very exciting place, and even though I've been exploring it for years, going out into it and painting with friends, there's still a lot of it I haven't seen. One of the things I used to do to get inspired is, I'd go up in my friend Jerry Foster's helicopter. He was flying and filming for Channel 12 back then. He'd fly me around the mountains at sunset. I'd have Pink Floyd blasting on the headphones, and then I'd just go back home and paint everything I'd seen. Amazing.
If my paintings have done anything, I hope they make people think twice about the desert. I think any time you portray something with reverence, it makes people think twice about harming it or hurting it.
I'm seeing some of that reverence in the way things are changing here in Phoenix. I mean how they're taking old buildings and reinventing them, treating them with reverence by putting something new into them rather than tearing them down. When I first moved here, we had the Fox Theater, this big, lavish Deco theater with great Indian-inspired reliefs. We had the Palms, this cool Modernist theater, where you could see art films. They both got torn down, because they were on prime real estate. A total crime.
I have a lot of hope for the next generation of Phoenicians because a lot of young people get mad when they hear about something getting torn down. Also, young people all seem to have a better sense of design than my generation did. A lot of us, when we were young, just set up our homes for convenience, and everything lacked any kind of design integrity.
Young or old, one thing that hasn't changed is that people complain about the heat, all the time, every summer. But one of the good things about the heat is, it keeps us from being a bigger city. Think about it: There are a lot of people who won't live here because the heat is too much for them. It keeps our population down, which isn't a bad thing. — as told to Robrt L. Pela
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